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LADELPHIA -- In those first days on the job, Clint Hurdle's mission was to convince his players that winning was possible. Simple stuff, right?
"I'd look 'em in the eye and say, 'Boys, we're here to win ballgames,'" he said. "They'd drop their eyes and say, 'Yeah, yeah, we're good with that.'"
The Pirates were working on a string of 18 consecutive losing seasons when Hurdle was hired in November 2010, and he quickly figured out that changing attitudes would be critical.
"If you can't think it, if you can't talk about it, you can't do it," he said. "You've got to open yourself up and be vulnerable. Sometimes the hardest part is looking people in the eye and saying, 'We expect to win a division championship.' Who cares what they say on the street? They've been laughing at me for a year."
They're laughing no longer. Hurdle instilled confidence in a clubhouse that had very little. He also demanded that the game be played a certain way. He pleaded with his guys to trust their ability and have fun.
He nursed the Pirates into first place as late as July 25 last season before a 19-43 freefall. They're right back in the mix in 2012. General manager Neal Huntington made a string of shrewd acquisitions -- right-hander A.J. Burnett, left-hander Erik Bedard, shortstop Clint Barmes and catcher Rod Barajas -- and the Pirates are rolling along at 38-34 and two games behind the Reds in the National League Central.
They've done the basics well, which, come to think of it, is exactly what Hurdle predicted would happen.
"I've told 'em, 'Boys, it's all about pitching and defense and scoring one more run than the other team,'" he said. "That's it. We can beat anybody tonight if we score one more run than the other team. It's one game. That's caught on and gotten some traction."
Offensively, the Pirates were the worst team in the Majors for much of this season. Lately, even that part of their game has gotten going. They're fourth in the National League in scoring this month, and that's plenty good enough for a pitching staff that has rolled up the NL's third-best ERA at 3.35.
"You've got to be able to walk and talk winning," Hurdle said. "Our guys are walking better. They're talking better. They believe in things they can't see, but there has been some increments of tangible evidence. We can play this game."
Huntington has attempted to build the organization step by step. He has poured big money into player development and constructed a Minor League system that has drawn rave reviews.
As Andrew McCutchen, Alex Presley and Jose Tabata got to the Major Leagues, Huntington began filling in around the edges by trading for veterans and spending modestly on free agents.
Burnett has had a huge impact, both on the mound (8-2, 3.24 ERA) and in tutoring gifted young right-hander James McDonald (6-3, 2.19 ERA). Likewise, Barajas has been critical in leading the pitching staff.
The Pirates sent a message that the time had come to win when they made a six-year, $51 million commitment to McCutchen earlier this season. After enduring plenty of tough times, McCutchen could see that things were changing.
"Everything is a process," he said. "We knew we weren't going to have success right away. We also weren't going to lose forever. That wasn't going to happen. I knew eventually things were going to change. We had to keep trusting in each other. We have to have that mentality that we were a good team. Regardless of what other teams have, we're going to play hard and fight. We have to have the attitude we can compete with anyone."
Burnett has been reinvigorated by the trade from the Yankees to the Pirates and has been valuable both on the mound and in the clubhouse.
"You see guys gaining confidence," he said. "It seems like the boys are hungry. If a younger guy wants to pick my brain, I'm happy to do what I can. It makes me feel better when I see things coming together for our young starters."
Confidence could be building in other areas. The Pirates are on pace to draw 2 million fans at PNC Park for the first time since its opening season in 2001. Hurdle has done some informal surveying of local fans himself.
"There was this panhandler I met last year," he said. "I put something in his bucket, and he asked if I was the guy who managed the Pirates. I told him I was. The first thing he told me was, 'You guys are no good.'"
With the Pirates in first place in July last season, the guy changed his tune.
"You're not that good," he said. "You know you're not that good."
When Hurdle saw the guy this season, there was a different tone.
"You might be OK," he said.
Hurdle tells the story with the appropriate pauses, drawing laughter from a roomful of reporters.
"He's one of many [who has had to be convinced], and understandably so," Hurdle said. "But it's how it translates in our clubhouse that's important. You've got to be able to walk and talk winning. Our guys are walking better. They're talking better. We can play this game."